Phifer, Mekhi 1975–
Mekhi Phifer 1975–
Although he had no way of knowing it at the time, one of Mekhi Phifer’s high school jobs would give him experience that he’d later apply in his career. Worn down by minimum-wage jobs, Phifer tried his hand as a street corner drug dealer—for exactly one day. However, he quickly realized that drug dealing was not his true calling. With no prior acting experience, director Spike Lee chose him to star as a drug dealer in his film clockers. From there, Phifer went on to star in a slew of both moderately successful and critically acclaimed films.
Phifer was born in 1975, and raised in Harlem with his half brother. His mother, Rhoda, was a single mom and elementary school teacher. He never met his father. Phifer credits his mother constantly, applauding her for having the courage to raise him on her own. Although the family didn’t have much money, he told People, “she always provided everything I needed.” Phifer also remarked in Essence, “I know a lots of brothers just trying to do their thing and stay out of trouble. Thanks to my mom I didn’t get caught up in the street nonsense.”
Bad Career Choice
Phifer first tried his hand at acting at the age of seven. He played the Ghost of Christmas Present in a Harlem community center production of A Christmas Carol. Phifer studied hard in school, and was a good student. He also worked several after-school jobs that paid only minimum wage. At the age of 16, Phifer tried his hand at dealing drugs. While peddling marijuana and crack cocaine on a Harlem street corner, he quickly realized that drug dealing was not the life for him. Phifer told People, “I was like, ‘What am I doing out here? My mom raised me better than this.’” He went on to graduate from Lincoln Square Auxiliary Services High School in 1994, and was accepted into the State University of New York’s electrical engineering program in New Paltz. A decision to accompany his cousin on a film casting call would change Phifer’s life forever.
Phifer and his cousin attended an open casting call for the Spike Lee film, Clockers. Phifer showed up at the audition with a Woolworth’s photo booth snapshot and no professional experience. Out of the 1,000 other hopefuls, and after ten callbacks, he landed a part in the film. “We got there and one of the casting associates pulled me aside and told me to come back, I was really excited,” he told Teen Magazine. Phifer played the lead role of Strike, a moody 19–year-old crack dealer who is accused of a murder he may or may not have committed in the Brooklyn projects. Critics praised Clockers as one of Lee’s strongest films, and lauded Phifer’s performance. Entertainment Weekly wrote that the film was “a work of staggering intelligence and emotional force,” and that Phifer played Strike “beautifully.” The New Republic wrote that Phifer “plays Strike with a corkscrew ungainlyness that suggests both victim and rebel.” Spike Lee told People magazine, “Mekhi definately knows who he is. He’s very talented.”
Phifer’s role in Clockers earned the young actor a lot
At a Glance…
Born in 1975. Education: graduated from Lincoln Square Auxiliary Services high school, 1994.
Career: Actor; starred in the films: Clockers, 1995; The Tuskegee Airmen, 1995; High School High, 1996; Soul Food, 1997; / Still Know What You Did Last Summer, 1998; A Lesson Before Dying, 1999; O, 2000; The Imposter, 2000; released debut rap album, New York Related: The HF Project, 1999.
Member: Screen Actors Guild, 1995–,
Addresses: Agent —William Morris Agency, 151 El Camino Dr., Beverly Hills, CA 90212;
of attention, and more offers of acting roles. He landed a role in the critically acclaimed HBO movie The Tuskegee Airmen, which told the story of African American army fighter pilots who fought bravely in World War II Phifer then starred with comedian Jon Lovitz in the comedy spoof High School High. The young actor made a favorable impression on the producer of High School High, David Zucker. Zucker told People that he enjoyed working with Phifer because, “He has no chip on his shoulder, no pretensions. He just knocked me over.”
In the popular music video for Brandy and Monica’s “This Boy is Mine,” Phifer made a cameo appearance as a man torn between the two pop music princesses. As a result of his appearance in the video, teen audiences throughout the world began to recognize his face. Phifer welcomed the attention, but wasn’t entirely comfortable with the idea of being recognized when he went out. “I like it when people show me love,” he told Teen Magazine, “but sometimes it’s weird.”
Phifer appeared in the moderately successful ensemble drama Soul Food, which was produced by R&B star Babyface. Phifer played Lem Davis, a volatile but good-natured ex-con who is married to the youngest daughter in a large and dynamic family. The family’s willingness to gather for dinner each Sunday, through both good and bad times, is the glue which holds them together. Soul Food writer and director George Tillman Jr. told People, “He [Phifer] brings a natural aura to all the characters he plays. You can identify with him so much.”
In 1998 Phifer starred in the horror film I Still Know What You Did Last Summer, which was the sequel to the popular I Know What You Did Last Summer. Phifer played Tyrell Martin, the college boyfriend of Karla Wilson, who is played by Brandy Norwood. Martin and Wilson, along with their teenage friends, spend their Fourth of July weekend being chased and murdered by a fisherman with a bloody hook for a hand.
After his appearance in I Still Know What You Did Last Summer, Phifer took on a more serious role. In A Lesson Before Dying, a 1999 television movie based on the best-selling novel by Ernest J. Gaines, Phifer portrays Jefferson, a young African American man from a small town who is wrongly accused of killing a white shop owner. Jefferson is humiliated by whites during the trial, and his self-esteem is shattered. A local school teacher named Grant Wiggins, who is played by Don Cheadle, is sent to help restore the boy’s dignity before he faces execution.
Returned to First Love
In 1998, Phifer started to expand his focus beyond acting. He released his debut rap album, New York Related: The HF Project. “I’ve been rhyming since I was 12 or 13,” Phifer told Teen Magazine. “Music is my first love.” He also became a partner in a management company that focused on launching new talent. In 2000, Phifer starred in a youthful adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Othello. The film, which is called O, takes place in a modern-day wealthy prep school. He also starred with Gary Sinise in The Imposter, a film about aliens invading earth.
Phifer looks forward to eventually getting married and starting a family. Although he has little spare time, he won’t spend it in acting class. Phifer laughs at the idea of being told to act like a fish, or to “sizzle like bacon.” “I just want to study life,” he told People. As an actor, Phifer plans to continue making films. However, he is willing to wait for quality roles. Phifer told Jet, “If I can’t sit in the movie theater and chill and be proud, I don’t need to be watching it—let alone starring in it.”
The Tuskegee Airmen, 1995.
High School High, 1996.
Soul Food, 1997.
I Still Know What You Did Last Summer, 1998.
A Lesson Before Dying, 1999.
The Imposter, 2000.
Entertainment Weekly, September 25, 1995, p. 84
Essence, January 1998, p.54.
Jet, June 21, 1999, p.25.
New Republic, October 2, 1995, p.38.
People Weekly, December 25, 1995, p. 124; Novem ber 23, 1998, p.107.
Teen Magazine, November 1997, p.46.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from “Mekhi Phifer,” internet Movie Database, http://www.imdb.com (February 24, 2000); and “YoungHoltywood.com, http://www.younghollywood.com (February 24, 2000).
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